Despite major developments in technology, 3D printing still intimidates many newer users. Many of the assumptions regarding 3D printing are steeped in confusion about its uses, popularity, and price. Consumers often view 3D printers as million-dollar devices when, in reality, consumer-grade tech costs $700 on average, with professional quality printers rivaling industrial machines at the mid-4-figure price range.
This affordability now makes it easier to purchase a 3D printer, yet when it comes to using the devices, price isn’t the only factor. Accessibility must improve for the 3D printing revolution to come into its own. Otherwise, consumers and businesses alike will continue to view 3D printing as a technology for the future—when, in reality, the multifaceted use is both here and now.
When software manages to connect 3D printers online directly with the user, with zero latency, it allows users to go from simply designing, to actually manufacturing—which has been an undelivered claim of 3D printing for years. When a single user can operate a 3D printer from initial set-up to final creation, rather than having several workers handling specific tasks at every step of the process, we won’t just see wider adoption of the technology, but an actual revolution in the way manufacturing functions.
According to Sculpteo’s State of 3D Printing 2019 report, 80% of surveyed businesses say 3D printing has significantly improved the speed of production. Industries and educational institutions are missing out on massive potential by foregoing cutting-edge digital manufacturing techniques. This is a result not of the price (which, as mentioned earlier, is fairly low) but of imagined difficulty of use.
To increase 3D printer use, the software has to meet both need and demand. The only way forward is through one-click printing via an online, cloud-based platform.
AM in digital manufacturing today
The most popular use for 3D printers in manufacturing remains in prototyping. The benefits are clear: a rapid prototyping process, a low cost of failure, and a highly customizable design file for easy changes. Of course, we know that 3D printers are capable of so much more.
When it comes to large scale production, the challenges companies face increase alongside the benefits. The cost of the equipment and the lack of expertise with the machinery are among the two most notable obstacles cited by business experts.
While these challenges exist, innovative start-up firms are creating new opportunities for a more widespread use of 3D printing. Businesses no longer need to treat their 3D printing operation as a diffuse entity. In fact, a designer or user can take an idea all the way to manufactured products on their own—assuming the hardware and software are intuitive enough to use.
While companies can help their employees with training on 3D printing systems—an orientation that can last days or weeks—the real sea of change comes in having technology and equipment intuitive enough to understand at every level without needing a certification or training: a one-click process.
Additive manufacturing’s key benefit
Despite some groundbreaking changes, 3D manufacturing remains in a disparate state. Even with a design in hand, the 3D printing process runs through several individuals or teams on its way to completion.
From the CAD model to the .STL and the slicing steps to the final sign-off, the current 3D process can take days or weeks before the printer is even brought online. Furthermore, different experts or even departments are in charge of various kinds of physicals, whether lightweight or heavy, small or large, etc.
This leads companies to view 3D printing as solely a means of prototyping. Without a fuller understanding of the potential of additive manufacturing, companies miss out on expanding, improving, and developing their workflow processes. And in today’s fast-paced environment, enterprises are under pressure to bring products to market faster than ever before.
For a fuller picture of the way 3D works today, look no further than the automotive industry, where three out of four companies in the U.S. and Germany utilize AM. Automobile manufacturers have already moved beyond the rapid prototyping uses of 3D printing and have added uses for manufacturing custom parts, machines, and even entire 3D printed cars. While a mass-produced consumer model of the latter is some time away, the capabilities of AM have evolved alongside their ease-of-use. Now, instead of keeping a part in stock, manufacturers merely need to have the design on file or the ability to scan an item and reverse engineer it for 3D printing.
Let’s be clear: it isn’t just any first-day employee who can produce one of Bugatti’s 3D printed eight-piston monoblock brake calipers. Yet the very fact that a supercar manufacturer can produce a fully-titanium 3D printed part for use in its vehicles highlights the future of 3D printing. At that level of scale, one-click isn’t just easier, it’s necessary.
The one-click future
In contrast to the current (and increasingly outdated) 3D printing process is the one-click solution, where a single user completes a 3D printing project largely on their own. There’s no time lost in meetings, requests, and other housekeeping tasks that currently keep companies from fully implementing AM.
The reticence to adopt one-click practices comes from the assumption that AM must be difficult. This is nothing new: companies that purchased computer systems large enough to fill an entire room in the 1960s and ’70s faced a similar apprehension when personal computers emerged in the ’80s and ’90s.
A recent study analyzed the degree and scope of this type of resource sharing since the 1960s. The authors found that socialization is key in adopting Advanced Manufacturing Systems such as 3D printing.
When it comes to adapting to new technology, the role of the user is initially minimal, as they simply buy a ready-made, mass-produced product. There is no interaction between the consumer and the manufacturer. Ford’s Model T is a good historical example.
Over time, the user receives the opportunity to choose a customized product for a more satisfying experience. With a greater variety of products on the market, the consumer’s demands are closer to being met, as companies offer customized choices. We see this today in car manufacturers like Toyota providing a variety of engine power, colors, models and options for every type of customer.
The process evolves further in the third stage, when companies can customize a product to fit the consumer (literally, in the case of 3D printed insoles). The fourth stage involves the customer having more control of their own 3D printed product, including setting the delivery date and overseeing the manufacturing process.
Personal manufacturing goes beyond the full customization step. The user is involved not just in monitoring, but in actual manufacturing. They own an affordable, easy-to-use automated manufacturing machine, or has access to one via work or school.
The user can select quality, price, speed, material, production technology, and location of manufacturing. They can also choose a popular solution to the problem, or design it themselves. Every step, from the initial prototype to the final design and QA, are under the user’s control, giving them an unprecedented ability to customize and create at every step of the process.
This is the future of 3D printing via a one-click manufacturing process. With the user in full control, the possibilities for 3D printing truly create a societal change.